Black Ferns trio Ayesha Leti-I’iga, Amanda Rasch and Joanah Ngan Woo have at least three things in common.
They all star for the Wellington Pride women’s team, play their club rugby for Oriental Rongotai and are hoping to be part of the 2021 Rugby World Cup on home soil. But all have different motivations to grasp this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Ayesha Leti-l’iga: Honouring those who watch over her
A try-scoring sensation, Leti-I’iga used to come home from rugby with her pockets full of money.
Her grandfather would give her $10 for every try she scored. But he was soon having second thoughts as Leti-I’iga crossed the line, time after time.
“I scored seven tries in one game and he said, ‘You’re going to make me broke’,” she laughs.
He also had a habit of beeping his car horn after each of Leti-I’iga’s tries, leaving no doubt about who had just scored.
Although he passed away in 2019, ‘Papa’ is still with her on the field. His name is written on the strapping around her wrist, alongside another dearly departed loved one.
Her mum, Asolupe, passed away in 2009, when Leti-I’iga was just nine.
With the spirit of both driving her on, the 21-year-old winger has been unstoppable on the club rugby scene.
Her remarkable try tally for ‘Ories’ – Oriental Rongotai – is now over 150. Her scoring rate is around three tries a game and it’s common for her to score five or more.
That caught the attention of the national selectors and she’s been capped nine times for the Black Ferns, scoring twice.
Her sights are now set on repeating her try-scoring heroics on the biggest stage of all.
“It’s so exciting. With the World Cup being postponed until next year, it’s given me another year to work harder and fight for my starting spot,” she says.
“My grandad always told me ‘Nothing is ever handed to you, you have to work for it’. After all of my grandparents’ sacrifices, this is me trying to pay them back.”
Joanah Ngan Woo: Accepting the role model mantle
There’s only one thing on the mind of Ngan Woo when she laces up her rugby boots these days.
“I’m always thinking about the World Cup,” she says.
The ball-carrying lock very nearly achieved her World Cup dream four years ago, when the pinnacle of women’s rugby was held in Ireland.
“I was on standby and it looked like I would be called-up at one point because we had some injuries,” she explains.
“The manager sent me an email asking if I was ready to come and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh’. I didn’t end up going which was probably for the best because I don’t think I was ready.”
She is most definitely ready this time.
Ngan Woo, who can also play at flanker, made her international debut in 2019 and has three caps. But the 24-year-old is still coming to terms with the high regard in which she’s now held.
“Sometimes I don’t see myself right up there as a role model,” she admits. “But then I heard one of the new girls who came into the team at Ories was like, ‘Is that Joanah? She’s a Black Fern, I’m so scared to meet her’.
“It’s cool to be recognised like that and taking on being a role model. That means I need to build up these young girls as well.”
Amanda Rasch: Dreaming of being Ma’a
When Rasch first picked up a rugby ball, she wanted to be just like Ma’a Nonu.
The All Black great is one of several prominent players to have come through the Ories ranks.
With female role models in short supply at the time, Rasch turned to the likes of Nonu and the Savea brothers, Julian and Ardie, who also starred for the club.
“I didn’t watch much of the women’s games when I was growing up and it was more guys like Ma’a that I looked up to; he was my favourite player,” she admits.
“It’s great that women’s rugby is now getting a lot more exposure. Younger girls can now look up to us rather than just the guys, and that’s really special.”
Deadly accurate from the kicking tee, the first-five has regularly wrapped up huge points totals during games for the Wellington Pride and the Ories.
Rasch, 21, is yet to be capped for the Black Ferns but is very much in the frame for the World Cup.
Her dreams of being like Ma’a have now changed to slotting a World Cup-winning kick between the posts.
“I know a lot of the girls were a bit gutted about it being postponed, but it didn’t really affect me,” Rasch says.
“I think it just gives us more time to prepare and something to look forward to. I feel really blessed to be where I am right now and I’m reminding myself to just enjoy it.”
The Women’s Rugby World Cup has never been held in New Zealand. So the players who make the squad will create history when they run out at Eden Park to take on Australia in the opening match next October.
But they will only be able to do so if they’re fit and injury-free.
Despite her tender years, Rasch knows how challenging it can be to overcome serious injury. She’s already had to come back from two shoulder reconstructions.
“Recovering from injury is so taxing, more mentally than physically. In hindsight, I’m now a lot more resilient and I’ve learned a lot from going through those experiences,” she says.
“I always make sure I prepare properly, it’s just a given now. I can’t afford not to, otherwise I know I’ll get injured. That’s just the reality of it.”
She’s a passionate advocate of RugbySmart, a world-leading programme run by New Zealand Rugby with support from ACC.
ACC have increased its investment in RugbySmart to $9.3 million over the next five years, with the aim to make sure players are ready before lacing up their boots. That means being physically fit, properly managing injuries and understanding correct playing techniques.
* The Wellington Pride will open their Farah Palmer Cup season against Otago on July 18. All Farah Palmer Cup matches will screen on Sky Sport – another rugby first.